The creative process behind each piece of Magic art is unique to the image and the artist.
From the art description to the final product, the Art in Focus series reviews every step involved in crafting the art of Magic the Gathering in the artist’s own words.
This week we shine the spotlight on Nissa, Vastwood Seer & Nissa, Sage Animist by Wesley Burt from Magic Origins.
Take it away Wes.
The direction from the beginning called for the younger version of Nissa, pre-spark, as well as the full elementalist warrior Planeswalker version of Nissa.
The young version was really fun to imagine, as it was to depict her younger days as a scout on an expedition for her tribe on her home plane of Zendikar. Having not worked on anything Zendikar prior to this, but being a big fan of the setting and previous illustrations, it was really fun to try and capture that sense of adventure and exploration.
The mood direction provided by Art Director Jeremy Jarvis was right in line with that too, “There are always lands beyond the horizon to explore”.
I knew right away that I wanted to place the ‘camera’ lower and have a cool angle looking up at her as she is bounding through the branches and forests thousands of feet up in the air on a floating rock. I had lots of 80’s movies in my head, thanks to their sense of exploration and amazing real life locations and matte paintings; The Indiana Jones movies, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Willow, & Nausicaa among others.
With the new splash format for these (widescreen in dimensions for the video game and pc screens, & crops for cards), I really wanted to go as cinematic as possible, but still maintain a painterly look.
I was supplied with costume concepts for the new look of young Nissa, which was a really cool design with nice break-ups in materials and shapes. So with that already determined, and lots of pre-existing Zendikar reference, I was able to jump right into sketching.
I had a clear idea in my head from the start for this one and just sat down and sketched away until it was feeling like the image I could see in my head. It’s pretty apparent too in comparing the sketch to the final, as loose and rough as it is, that the idea was already set and little changed, it just needed lots of time to go through polishing and bringing it to life.
Not all illustrations go this way, and ones where you do a bit of searching can lead to great results as well, but as an illustrator it really is fun and exciting when you get one of these images that has such clarity in your mind from the start and you can jump in and take it to finish.
Looking at it now, essentially a year later, there are lots of little things I’d change or repaint, but I’m still really happy with the idea and composition, and especially the little passage of light that is coming across her face, symbolizing that horizon and adventure ahead.
For the fully spark activated hero version of Nissa the direction called for a dense forest surrounding her, “a noble and powerful guardian of nature” embracing her surroundings, as Jeremy described the mood.
I kept with a lot of the running influences from the young version here as well, the slightly otherworldly forests in fantasy movies, where the sets sometimes even feel more ‘real’, the sense of awe as she is casting a spell, and in this case having her directly looking at the viewer to embrace her sense of power, still slightly aloof or distant yet fully noble and heroic.
With this one, there were actually several sketches that explored different arrangements and ideas at first, dipping her foot into a magic imbued pond, or looking up into the canopy of the forest with golden cascading light falling through, but we settled on the direct approach with her in the middle of casting the spell and looking right at the viewer.
I think it was the right way to go for this one, especially since we knew from the beginning that the widescreen image would have a planeswalker card crop that needed a good vertical format.
After coming to that decision and direction for Nissa in the scene, I knew that I wanted the surroundings to be a bit darker in value to really allow the magic spell to literally light up and shine more, so the dense forest began to take on a different look; lots of vines and mossy surfaces, still alive and not too swampy, but bluer in tone in the background to really pop the greens.
Jeremy had lots of great ideas and references for how he pictured her magic spells to look, with examples of repeating organic shapes like pinecones or the insides of fruits, which made me think of several videos and references I’ve seen of spirals and the Fibonacci numbers showing up in nature.
Painting this one was lots of fun as well, going for that cinematic look I sort of envisioned it as a triumphant reveal or near climactic scene in that sense; I wanted it to feel alive and almost like you could hear the orchestral movie score in the background building up.
Technique-wise I also really enjoyed coming up with brushes and mark-making to paint the various materials and get the right impression of them, something I didn’t have a whole lot of experience painting before.
I’m still pretty happy with this one too a year later, there are lots of little things I’d change or fix, but this one really set up a bunch of techniques I’m still using today and had a lot of elements that really clicked for me. Like with the younger Nissa, I’m really happy with the little passage of light on her face (as a parallel to the young version), and also the way it is spilling through the cracks between her fingers, with the focal points pretty clearly defined but still allowing me to go looser in the extremities of the illustration.
I usually work on the sketch phase for all of my illustrations with very little reference as I want to really just focus on the idea of the image and its layout and composition, and not be too tied to anything pre-existing. I do sometimes create an inspiration folder before sketching, but not always, I don’t think I did for these, just the supplied reference from Jeremy.
After I have a sketch fully thought out though, I definitely gather lots of different reference materials for different purposes. These can include lighting references, textures and materials like rocks or plant life, inspirational color palettes, or specific things like hands holding objects.
I actually didn’t realize that these were for the last Core Set until much later, but it hasn’t affected me too much, I think all the cards I had in it were of pre-existing characters and finalized designs!
Over the last 4 years (?) or so of illustrating for Magic, the majority of the work I’ve done has been for the specific storylines or specific worlds, which I really enjoy from the world building aspect and also because I love seeing all sorts of artwork from different illustrators contributing to the same universe.
I totally understand the love though for the pure creative sense of some of the past sets where they were less grounded in a specific world bible, but I hope fans also see the benefit to storytelling with cohesive fleshed out worlds and characters.
I certainly enjoy it and always love to pour through the art bibles that are sent out each time we start a new block, I’m especially excited that a new one just showed up today 😉 I think people are in for a real treat with a lot of the stuff to come.
The original artwork for Nissa was created digitally. Anyone interested in purchasing prints or some of his other work should check out his website.
Thank you Wes for sharing this story with us.
Check back Tomorrow and next Thursday for more Art in Focus.